Category: Design & culture

Bruce Lee and the enduring jeet kune do spirit

South China Morning Post, April 2013. Forty years after his death, two of Bruce Lee’s siblings reminisce about their famous brother’s life and a legacy that is inspiring a whole new generation of fighters. Jo Baker reports Hard bodies abound. At the annual One Asia Mixed Martial Arts Summit, big names, tight muscles and a […]

South China Morning Post, April 2013. Forty years after his death, two of Bruce Lee’s siblings reminisce about their famous brother’s life and a legacy that is inspiring a whole new generation of fighters. Jo Baker reports

Hard bodies abound. At the annual One Asia Mixed Martial Arts Summit, big names, tight muscles and a whole lot of spin are building an air of promise laced with testosterone.

The most highly billed appearances, however, are those of a pair who are not part of the fight club here at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands resort. As the first day of talks wind down, a convention room fills and falls quiet for two unassuming figures in their autumn years.

Neither compete, but they are happy to spin some eagerly received yarns about a long-dead fighting legend.

“Bruce was way ahead of his time in martial arts,” announces Bruce Lee’s younger brother, Robert Lee Chun-fai. “He wanted to show that there really is no set way in fighting and there is no limit. He believed that martial artists should not be bound to only just one or a few styles.”

Hong Kong’s most famous son is an unofficial figurehead for mixed martial arts (MMA) – not just as an iconic fighter, but as the man who pioneered its founding principles on a global scale. A fledgling but fast-growing sport that mixes fighting styles in showy, caged and sometimes vicious displays, MMA commands an estimated 60-million-strong television audience in more than 70 countries, and has in the past few years begun to reach the Asian mainstream. Its heroes may not be household names yet, but they are beginning to be tossed around in bars, gyms and school grounds, from the Philippines to Japan. And though popular opinion suggests that Lee would have struggled to make it in today’s top MMA tiers, 40 years after his death his name evokes a unique sense of affection among fighters.

“To ask the relevance of Bruce Lee to MMA is to ask the relevance of Picasso to modern art,” says Melvin Lee (no relation), who works at the Budo Academy in Penang, Malaysia. “You ask any top MMA guy, 90 per cent will say that he inspired them to fight.”

It was Bruce Lee’s system, or philosophy, jeet kune do (JKD), that saw a push for martial arts techniques to be cherry-picked to suit the skills of an individual fighter. Based on his principles “take what is useful, reject what is useless” and “be like water”, JKD was radical in a world of centuries-old combat systems closely protected by grandmasters.

Robert Lee, a retired musician now in his 60s, can remember the seeds of JKD being sown among the rooftops and schoolyards of Kowloon during Bruce Lee’s early teens, even before the body of his work was developed in the United States, and broadcast via American and Hong Kong movies.

“I think he started it off, though not intentionally; it was just what he believed in,” says Lee, sitting in a quiet corner with older sister Phoebe. “When he was young he realised that when you fight in the streets, wing chun alone doesn’t work. Bruce always believed in being able to do everything and using the techniques to your advantage, by knowing yourself and your limitations.”

Wing chun was famously Bruce Lee’s “mother” system – a Chinese kung fu style that emphasises straight line fighting and hand-trap-ping techniques.

He chose it, says Robert Lee, to suit Hong Kong’s dense urban setting and tight spaces. But to hone his skills he would join rooftop brawls with fighters of a rival style, choy lay fut, often throwing in techniques learned from boxing, wrestling and street-fighting.

“The bouts were held on rooftops to elude the police,” recalls Lee, with a grin. “The rules were simple, e.g. no gouging of the eyes, no biting and no hitting or kicking the groin.”

Robert Lee in 1968, two years after having founded popular local beat band The Thunderbirds.There were few serious injuries – the combatants were mostly school-age teens with little fighting experience; yet Bruce became known as one of the fiercest, says his brother. He was given the nickname “The King Gorilla” and his reputation began to cause problems.

“Because of his constant fighting, his notoriety became known to the Hong Kong police, and finally my mother was summoned to the local police station,” he says. “She was told that if her son continued his pugnacious behaviour the police would have no choice but to take him into custody. My parents made the decision that it was best for him to have a change of environment.”

This was the move that arguably allowed Bruce Lee’s philosophy to take shape. In the US, he was free to absorb various styles at school tournaments and demonstrations, from jiu-jitsu to judo. He taught kung fu throughout high school and college to earn his keep, and the environment there was more receptive to experimentation. In the late 1960s, Lee’s practice was given a name and gained a following. However, he always thought of JKD as a process of refinement, rather than a style.

“I have not invented a new style, composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from this method or that method,” Lee told an interviewer in 1971. “On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or moulds.”


Robert Lee, who moved to the US in 1969, 10 years after Bruce, and lives in Los Angeles, remembers various discussions with his brother as he developed JKD.

“He told me that it could have been [called] ‘ABC’ or ‘123’ because he didn’t want the name to be mistakenly identified as a style of martial arts,” Lee says.

“I remember Bruce used to own a miniature grave replica made by one of his students, which had the engraving, ‘Here lies a once fluid man, overcome by the classical mess.’ It signified that Bruce did not believe that one should be bound by fixed forms and styles in fighting … One should learn how to relate to his opponent and be able to move with him – like in a non-improvised dance.”

Lee’s use of grapples, biting and other less dignified techniques in movies such as 1973’s Enter the Dragon thrilled much of his audience, young Asians and Western enthusiasts alike.

“I was about 10 when I saw my first [Bruce Lee] movie, and I was really impressed,” says Yung Ka-wai, a Hong Kong-born MMA instructor, at the summit. “It was totally different to any other kind of Hong Kong martial arts movies. What you saw was much closer to a real fight: more spontaneous and rough. Less ‘I’m a gentleman’. Not long after that, I began to train.”

Bruce Lee did not appear to hold back on this point. As well as commissioning that mock-epitaph, he derided traditional combat styles as “baloney” to journalists, and referred to martial-arts competitions as “dry land swimming”.

And as the Lees now recall, it made him a divisive figure among masters, particularly in the East.

“There was a lot of jealousy,” says Phoebe Lee, who was born in Hong Kong and moved, in 1970, to San Francisco, where she worked as a bookkeeper at a meat wholesaler.

Feathers were ruffled, she says, backs turned, challenges regularly thrown down.Yet Bruce Lee’s siblings reject the suggestion that he was ever downcast by this. “Bruce was street-smart, and he knew how to entertain the different masters. He’d taunt them gently and win them over by sharing knowledge,” says Robert Lee.


And when that didn’t work, he’d get physical. Lee recalls a story he heard from Bruce’s wife, Linda, in the 60s, in which a sifu (traditional Chinese master) arrived out of the blue at the Lees’ family home in Los Angeles. The sifu challenged Lee’s teaching methods and his Chinese identity. Then, family legend has it, the sifu lost a duel in the family garage and vowed never to deride Lee again.

Lee’s influence and inspiration went beyond his physical prowess. At the summit cocktail reception, over house wine and cocktail nuts, the siblings’ presence sparks fond reminiscences among fighters and promoters, ranging in topic from Lee’s mind-body philosophy to his holistic approach to health; his early protein shakes to his nunchucks. And, of course, his sartorial flair.

“He was always a sharp dresser, just like The Fonz,” says Robert Lee, grinning. “That’s how he was. He wasn’t trying to be cocky. He was 13, 14, going to school, dressing sharp every day.”

Contrary to more heroic notions, it is here that the seeds of Bruce Lee’s path as a warrior were sown.

“He’d basically get roughed up because of his confidence and his haute couture,” says Robert Lee, with a laugh. “Bruce decided that if he wanted to keep his image he would need to learn to defend it.”

It was also a sense of style he took seriously, according to his sister.

“I remember our servant ironing his trousers for him once, and he noticed it wasn’t right,” she says. “He took the iron and did it himself. He was hot-tempered and he wanted to do everything perfectly, beginning to end. Even ironing.”

Yet the Lees have less light to shine on one of the most intriguing parts of their brother’s story. Bruce was a strong, charismatic Chinese man in a world with few Asian icons. According to the president of MMA’s Ultimate Fighting Championship, Dana White, he made martial arts “the thing to do”, but he also made the world a better place in which to be Asian.

“Look at the way Asians were portrayed back then,” White said in an interview last year. “They were portrayed as kind of goofy and weak. And then here comes this Asian guy who every person of every colour in every country worshipped as the baddest dude in the world.”

But what of the idea – often proffered – that this was intentional; that Bruce Lee was fuelled in part by the sense of being an underdog?

“Bruce didn’t face those problems in Hong Kong,” says Robert Lee. “My mother’s uncle was Robert Hotung, the first knight of the city. He had a lot of businesses and influence in the government, and whatever we wanted to do we could.”

Rather than being in any way oppressed, the picture the Lees paint is of a well-off and well-connected family with chauffeured cars and opportunities aplenty. Bruce’s biggest problem in those early teenage years, his brother says, was defending his right to be fashionable.

In contrast, both Lees admit Bruce did face prejudice in America, but insist he rarely appeared bothered by it. When faced with open disrespect, he would simply counter it with a show of his physical prowess. They give anecdotes of calm, quick aggression and lessons soundly delivered, whether to rude drivers, disrespectful fellow students or taunting movie stars.

“Bruce just really believed in himself,” Robert Lee says. “In America there was no understanding among big guys there that an Asian could be a powerful fighter, and I’ve seen him go up against Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris. I’ve seen Bruce treat them like dolls. He would be like, ‘You think I’m no good? I’ll show you how good.'”

So Bruce Lee would be more likely to use force to make a point than his legendary on-screen charisma?

“Unfortunately, that’s who he was. But I think his self-confidence stopped him from going too far,” says Robert Lee. “If you really believe in yourself, there’s no need for it.”

Real-life stories aside, there is one thing on which everyone at the summit can agree. In the 40 years since his death, no role model has emerged from this region who can cast a shadow on Lee’s legacy. Many at the Marina Bay Sands hope that if one does materialise, it will be from the cocktail of street smarts and showmanship that is MMA.

“This is the first time you’ve had a gathering of this many real-life heroes in pan-Asia,” says Chatri Sityodtong, who founded renowned academy Evolve MMA. “And I believe that the few years to come will be viewed as the biggest inflection point in MMA since Bruce Lee in Asia. I’ll bet that in 10 years people will be saying, ‘Here comes Shinya Aoki,’ for example. It won’t be movie stars but real fighters.”

Robert Lee has yet to see a challenge to his brother’s legacy in the region, least of all in Hong Kong, where he considers the younger generation to be spoilt and restricted. He continues to work on projects to keep his sibling in the public eye, such as the 2010 movie Bruce Lee, My Brother (which he narrated and produced); but he gives the idea of a successor to Lee grudging consideration.

“To get close to matching him, not only do you have to put in hard work, you have to be mentally strong and mentally creative, to be able to know yourself,” he says. “Bruce always emphasised [that you must] really know yourself – your advantages and disadvantages – and that’s the mental part, the philosophy. Does MMA teach enough of this? I don’t know. But it seems like a good start.”

For now, the Bruce Lee legacy is something his surviving family members will continue to nurture.

“If Bruce was alive he would say, ‘Tell people about me as a person,'” says Robert Lee. “If people could just realise who he is, I think he could still have a lot to offer. His influence never ends.”


Journalist Jo Baker interviews Bruce Lee siblings, Robert and Pheobe Lee

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Master of the House: Architect Wang Shu

Discovery Magazine, May 2012.  Chinese architect and Pritzker winner Wang Shu may draw from the spirit of traditional architecture, but with enough depth and ingenuity to keep the clichés at bay

He calls his studio ‘Amateur Architecture’. His work is anything but.

This year, China’s Wang Shu was lifted from the relative quiet of his small practice in Hangzhou by a heavyweight panel of his peers, hailed as a “virtuoso” and presented with architecture’s equivalent to an Academy Award: a Pritzker.

And yet just as Hollywood has its naysayers and anti-heroes, the Chinese architect is emerging as a kind of anti-designer.  “Design is an amateur activity. Life is more important,” he has said. “The Amateur Architecture studio is a purely personal architecture studio; it should not even be referred to as an architect’s office.”

The likelihood of him accepting ‘starchitect’ status and all the trappings that follow, seems low indeed.

Wang Shu’s career has been defined largely by art and experimentation. Born in China’s northern Xingjiang province and inspired by the vastness of the landscapes, he started to draw and paint early. Architecture, he says, was simply a way to fit his own creativity with his parents’ idea of success. Even today he likens his design process to that of a traditional Chinese painter: he studies the shape and the history of a space, then often sits and drinks tea until the ideas to start to flow.

Yet this doesn’t mean that his work is abstract or out of touch. Amateur Architecture is deliberately small and its projects often local, scaled to fit the average person. “I build a ‘house’ instead of a ‘building’” he has said. “Architecture is a matter of everyday life.”

Before he and his wife, architect Lu Wenyu set up their studio in Hangzhou in the late nineties – a city renowned for its natural beauty and art heritage – Wang Shu spent almost a decade studying widely and working with craftsmen “out of the system,” as he called it, mainly renovating old buildings.

This seems to have been the bedrock of his success; he has an uncanny ability to understand and stretch the boundaries of those who build. It has also given him a lifelong love of China’s historic structures, and a dislike of his country’s liberalism with the wrecking ball.

Wang Shu’s landscapes therefore strike a deft balance between the past and the future. They manage to root down deeply into the Chinese cultural context, and yet feel forward-looking in the way that they use technology, or address space.  His first major project for example, the award-winning Library of Whenzheng College at Suzhou University, is strikingly modern but keeps with Suzhou’s gardening traditions. Since these dictate that buildings between water and mountains should be discreet, he designed nearly half of the library to sit underground.

This sense of heritage and handicraft is often expressed through material choices. The architect likes to use brick or tiles rescued from demolished hutongs (traditional courtyard houses), or material sourced in the area.

He resurrected two million such tiles in his renowned designs for a campus belonging to the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. His imposing Ningbo History Museum, modeled in part on an ancient Chinese fortress, works traditional masonry into a unique collage effect, to enrich a fascinatingly modern, off kilter-looking structure.

He may draw from the spirit of traditional architecture, but with enough depth and ingenuity to keep the clichés at bay.

Though he maintains a relatively low profile, Wang Shu is in demand as a teacher. He was the first Chinese architect to hold a prestigious visiting professor post at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the US last year, and spends much of his time at the architecture school of the China Academy of Art, where he is now the dean.

From here he approaches architecture as an advocate too, often speaking out against the “professionalized, soulless” nature of the profession, and urging younger Chinese architects to work locally and more slowly, with an eye towards history.

In the 1980s Wang Shu caused a stir at a conference by claiming that Chinese architects were simply people who knew how to draw, but who didn’t necessarily think while doing so. While he believes that this has changed, he laments that still, the wider Chinese public” often think of a building as just a container whose functions can change at will.”

He therefore calls himself a scholar, craftsmen and architect, in that order – and with each project, is on a mission to pass on knowledge and broaden horizons. This starts with his own office staff; he recently sent his team home for a full month to prepare for work on three museums. “They all had homework assignments: books to read on French philosophy, Chinese paintings to study or movies to watch,” he remembers. “When we all got back together we had discussions  – then began to work on the projects.”

Many of his peers approve. At only 49 Wang Shu holds a series of awards, from China’s Architecture Arts Award to the French Gold Medal from the Academy of Architecture, and he exhibits worldwide.

Architectural icon, Zaha Hadid, has praised his work for its sculptural power, and the ‘stimulating’ and ‘transformative’ way he uses ancient materials.  Veteran Chinese architect Yang Ho Chan meanwhile, also on the Pritzker jury, was gratified by the way he “shows that architecture in China is more than the mass production of market-driven banality and the reproduction of the exotic.”

Wang Shu’s recognition by the Pritzker jury is a nod to China’s big new role in developing global architectural ideals, and the way that the profession should approach for example, the problems arising from rapid urbanization.

His win praises an architecture that is less about iconic forms and brash statements, and more about buildings that are close to people, their hearts and their histories. In other words, just the kind of anti-hero that we need right now.



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Duality Check

South China Morning Post, 15 December 2011   Pakistani artist Rashid Rana continues to court controversy while hurdling cultural boundaries   Rashid Rana does not exactly mind being labeled a Pakistani artist, but he does wonder whether the tag does justice to the larger themes in his works. “A critic friend of mine has written […]

South China Morning Post, 15 December 2011


Pakistani artist Rashid Rana continues to court controversy while hurdling cultural boundaries


Rashid Rana does not exactly mind being labeled a Pakistani artist, but he does wonder whether the tag does justice to the larger themes in his works. “A critic friend of mine has written that my art speaks a global language, but with an accent,” he grins. “I like that better.” Considered one of his country’s top contemporary artists, Rana’s work has appeared in an impressive string of international shows, spanning the Musee Guimet in Paris to New York’s Asia Society. His Hong Kong debut, Translation/Transliterations, showcases his use of a distinct digital aesthetic to play with cultural motifs and social scenarios on one level, and study abstract visual ideas on another.

Yet it is Rana’s satirical bite, along with his love of both optical and ideological paradoxes, that has defined him among his contemporaries. Much of his work deftly attracts and then repels his audiences in an entertaining cycle. His acclaimed 2007 ‘Red Carpet’, is a digital rendition of a pretty Persian rug that, on closer inspection, becomes a montage of photographs taken in Lahore’s slaughterhouses. It set a world auction record at Sotheby’s for a Pakistani work of art. “The micro and macro images together create a kind of critical tension, and force the viewer to interact with the work and reconsider their assumptions about reality,” he explains. In creating a more recent work Rana photographed traditional Pakistani wrestlers, indulgently splashed with a little fake blood, then spliced and rearranged the imagery to create a disturbing sense of movement and mutilation.

These tendencies were perhaps most controversial in Rana’s 2004 Veil Series, in which the artist built impressionist-style images of women in Islamic burqas using a mosaics of fuzzy pornographic stills, sourced online; two opposing, inflexible stereotypes of gender in one. It was shown in London’s Saatchi Gallery among others, and was received with a good deal of media relish. Rana has enjoyed the range of reactions that it provoked. He remains amused that the question most-asked of him today is whether he has shown the series in Pakistan, a country known for the vigour of its conservative classes. “As an artist you don’t want to take too many risks, so in Lahore I show it to selected audiences and don’t generally involve media,” he admits. Yet he is bothered by the narrow representation of Pakistan by the international media. “It’s a pity, because the majority there vote for the most liberal political party – currently the Pakistan People’s Party – and Lahore has very open liberal art circles,” he says. “Pakistan is a micro-version of the globe. There are strong obscenity laws in Hong Kong too – I looked into them – and,” he adds with a smile, “I won’t tell you the name of the country in Europe where my work got censored.”

Rana’s playfully provocative approach has helped him beat a path to notoriety. After a Fine Arts MA from the Massachusetts College of Art in the early 90s, he decided to reach for the widest audience possible. “I wanted to make art that could compete with billboards: large, easy to understand; something that could grab you when you’re driving but then pull you into the paradoxes and the deeper content,” he recalls.  He initially worked with acrylic on canvas, photographic and video performances, and collages of found material among other media, and supported himself, as he still does, as a professor at Lahore’s School of Visual Art & Design, which he co-founded at its Beaconhouse National University. Yet it was his experiments in digital photomontage that brought commercial success, around six years ago. And although he had started out using fairly rudimentary techniques, Rana can now afford to stretch the technological boundaries of the medium with the latest programmes and processes. One of his still photo series, Desperately Seeking Paradise, cost him $100,000 to produce. ”I’m not saying that money necessarily produces good art,” he says. “But it has definitely given me more freedom to explore.” [Continued below].


Buoyed by his success, Rana now confidently chases concepts that are more visually abstract and of less immediate danger to hapless drivers. He delves most often into ideas of duality and polarization, teasing out new tensions between micro and macro images. His influences run extremely broad, from Pakistan’s late Zahoor ul-Akhlaq, who also merged abstract and traditional vernaculars, to the challenging visual language of American Op artist Ross Bleckner; and he admits a particular soft spot for provocative German visual artist Gerhard Richter. He has also started to take his digital work into the third dimension, printing images on aluminium cubes in a bid, he says, to challenge conventional ideas about the way photographic work can represent social and physical realities.

Many of Rana’s ideas continue to be triggered by events or images around his home city, Lahore, but are then developed into more transcendental themes. His Language Series for example [pictured above and below], plays with photographs of Urdu text collected in and around the city that, up close, are reavealed as transliterations of western words and names. While this can be read as casting comment on Pakistan’s colonial past, the artist is much more interested in the way the work explores text as an abstract, non-verbal image, open to multiple uses.

In this way Rana, though clearly a satisfied product of Pakistan and a willing commentator on its cultural intricacies, intends to bypass cultural borders. “I don’t want to be dismissive of my surroundings, or deny my past, but they don’t affect me to the extent that my work is only about ‘issues’. If I have to talk about an issue I can have a discussion or write a sentence, but to translate something into a visual form requires much more breadth,” he says. “Pakistan is an important part of my identity, but at the end of the day my art is also about transcending it.”




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Bridging the East-West design divide – in London

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 16 November 2011 [Original PDF:London Design Fest] China’s Diaspora designers face stiff competition in the UK, but offer hope for development despite trouble shaking off the Made-in-China tag In a trendy industrial space bordering a West London canal, an eclectic series of objects sit on podiums, amid coffee drinkers […]

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 16 November 2011 [Original PDF:London Design Fest]

China’s Diaspora designers face stiff competition in the UK, but offer hope for development despite trouble shaking off the Made-in-China tag

In a trendy industrial space bordering a West London canal, an eclectic series of objects sit on podiums, amid coffee drinkers and creative-types at work.

Among them are a ceramic Chihuahua in a neckerchief, labeled as a home accessory; a delicate, extraterrestrial-looking table poised as if for lift-off; a panel of architectural designs for a Buddhist temple in the heart of London; and a stool in mint-green metal entitled, fantastically, the ‘Silent Farter’.

These are just a few recent offerings from London’s Chinese Diaspora designers, and they signal a growing creative confidence amid a challenging landscape.

“The Made-in-China tag has brought some difficulty to Chinese designers trying to work in the UK or around Europe,“  says designer Elva White, who curated the exhibition, Cheers, for the UK China Art and Design Association (UCADA) Festival, which ran during September’s yearly London Design Festival.  “There are some issues that particularly affect Chinese designers here, and this was a way for them to talk about them, and also get some needed attention for their work.”

The association developed out of an informal group started by White and other graduates, mostly from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and it last year secured the formal backing of the Chinese embassy and the British Council.

China’s reputation as a manufacturing hub, combined with the negative publicity about its quality control and the youth of its design scene, can weigh heavily on Chinese designers looking to make it big overseas. Many move to the United Kingdom in search of a more cosmopolitan education and a stronger cultural design heritage, and hope to stay on and develop their career afterwards, at least for a few years.

But recognition is hard to come by, and they face stiff competition from their better-placed European counterparts.China is not yet widely known for its design talent, despite recent efforts by the government to reposition the country through international events, trade agreements, and by promoting the cultural and creative fields as new industry pillars.

Staffan Tollgard runs a high end interior design studio in London’s Notting Hill and credits Asian design as strongly influence in his work, but he believes that the manufacturing stereotype has done damage.

This year he co-launched a company, Kurate, to promote and import products by selected China-based designers, but he expects that, despite the success of the studios he’s working with, which include Neri & Hu, Design MWV and  HC 28, he has a task ahead in educating the British consumer.

“We’re basically saying that there are some really interesting things coming out of China at the moment, so please, rethink your idea that it’s just a copying nation,” he says. “The closeness of the designers with manufacturers there for example, means that prototypes are quicker to make and modify. We’re really seeing capabilities being pushed.”

In this sense, initiatives such UCADAs, that challenge conceptions of modern Chinese art and design, are coming at the right time. Last year David Jia, who founded one of China’s most successful industrial manufacturing firms LKK Design, opened a branch in London – his first out of China – and he sees the obstacles as unavoidable.

“It’s going to be a hard road. We have to change the European mentality about China’s ability to do good design, and there are always problems of cultural understanding, and of detailed communication between designer and customer,” he says.“But they can be overcome. And it’s our responsibility as a leader in this field in China to try to open this path.”

Through working and meeting with Diaspora designers, UCADA organizers have come across other issues that need addressing.  “Many young Chinese designers who arrive in London to study are less likely to have or build a good network, or self promote in the way that others do –  partly because of language difficulties, and a lack of confidence,” says Lucy Shum, who directs the UCADA festival.

Some of the exhibitors agreed. Taiwanese exhibitor Hsiang Wang says that he struggled to find contacts and exhibition opportunities in the UK after completing his Master’s degree. Shanghai-based Zhili Liu, designer of the delicate Shrub table, describes the isolation of a degree in Coventry University, which he spent mostly working alone.

UCADA has responded by setting up dialogues between UK and Chinese designers and an award for emerging Chinese talent and, following the exhibition’s successful run at the Beijing International Design Week in October as part of its London Guest City programme,  it is hunting for other overseas exhibitions to join.

Funding is a particular issue however.  Architect Guangyuan Li and his design partner Mohamed El Khayat took their Reading Chair to the last Milan Furniture Fair themselves, and were pleased with the interest and the opportunities that followed. Yet the chair alone cost them two thousand pounds to transport; they found that they were unable to afford the Beijing event, even though the chair would have made a noticeable splash among a relatively commercial programme.

The UK experience can be quite different for Chinese architects. Na Li works for Foster and Partners and exhibited her design for a Buddhist temple at Cheers. Ten years in the UK has given her a comfortable grasp of British sensibilities, and she believes that her background adds value to her resume.

“In a bigger company, as someone who can speak Mandarin and understand the cultural landscape, you can help it make a lot of connections in China,” she says. “And although I benefited from the more open methodologies here in terms of exploring my work, I feel that I’m still able, like a Spanish, French or any other nationality architect, to bring a fresh perspective to a design.”

The positioning of this Diaspora community between east and west holds promise for innovation across the disciplines. Alice Wang, designer of the Silent Farter [pictured below], opened her Taiwan-based studio following eight years in London. She believes that with a little support, cross-cultural designers such as herself are well positioned to fill the gap between experimental design and the products making it on the shelves.

“Being trained for a few years in Asia focuses you on how to keep the price minimal, on manufacturing or mass production, but often with everything in the same format,” she says “On the other side, in Europe they often care more about the concept, the humour or the theory behind a design, but can struggle to bring these ideas into manufacturing. Merging the two could only be positive.”

Boosting such opportunities and firming up the connection between the two regions could help China’s design credentials develop, while spreading the benefits farther.

As more internationally trained designers and architects are returning to China to become industry leaders, they bring with them the aspirations of older design cultures  in which design is infused into every environment – each bin and bus stop – rather than something found in galleries and appreciated only in creative circles.

In this way, ‘Designed in China’ may someday take on some-broad based resonance.

But until then, initiatives by those such as UCADA and Kurate will continue to both confound and raise Western expectations of Chinese design talent in smaller doses.

“At the moment I think there’s a wall between China and Europe, and it’s hard for us to see what we’re doing on each side,” says Na Li. “But we both want to. I think it’s definitely time for us to try to close the gap.”


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The arts are a traveller’s window into the heart of San Francisco

South China Morning Post, August 2012.

San Francisco has always had an acute sense of the frontier, and this can be said for its arts scene as well as for its gung-ho economy.

As a gold rush town, it was unusually cosmopolitan. In the mid-1800s it hosted up to 37 foreign consuls and boasted newspapers and theatre productions in at least five languages. By the time Mark Twain turned up in the 1860s, the city was a blur of bohemian activity, with strip after strip of saloons, boarding houses, dance halls, brothels and theatres.

During the next century, this bohemia fell victim to industry and the power of the American puritans; it is no coincidence that its architecture is so frothily Victorian. But its role as an artistic frontier somehow survived and ‘heading west’ has brought out the best in many writers since – from Jack London and Jack Kerouac to Isabel Allende and Amy Tan.

For anyone wanting to get a real sense of the place – after the trips to Alcatraz and a few laps of the bridge – there is scarcely a better angle from which to view it.

Once the counter-cultural hub of the Beat scene – the radical 1950s art movement of jazz, booze and ‘free thoughts’ – North Beach rubs shoulders with Chinatown and is defined by its homey European cafes, jazz dens and gelato stands. The Beat Museum, which opened in September, is a great place to start, especially on a Saturday morning when it holds its walking tours.

Converted rather haphazardly from a travelling exhibition, the museum needs a little spit and polish, but you will be pushed to find better memorabilia. Keep an eye out for the Beat pad mock-up, the annotated works of Howl by Alan Ginsburg and the screening of avant-garde films from the era.

A wander outside will take you to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights, the original Beat publishing house and still one of the city’s favourite independent bookstores. It also published Howl – a vehement, emotionally raw poem that changed the way literature was received in the United States. Handwritten signs and scattered chairs beckon. ‘Welcome, have a seat and read a book,’ one bids. Another says: ‘Free the press from its corporate owners!’

Next to City Lights on the aptly named Jack Kerouac Alley sits Vesuvio, another old Beat haunt. This snug two-storey bar serves the local literati and is still infused with a ’50s spirit, sans the fashionable fog of tobacco. The bar will begrudgingly offer you the Kerouac special: rum, tequila, orange/cranberry juice and lime served. But no absinthe.

A further stroll takes in the quirky Hotel Boheme, the Purple Onion (where Maya Angelou used to sing and dance before she became an author), 12 Adler Alley, where the word beatnik was born, and other relics and tributes to a movement that, as Beat Museum founder Jerry Cimino said, ‘was the most tolerant, compassionate and inclusive of them all … that told people to do what they love and then watch the world follow’.

The Ritual Roasters Cafe in the Mission is a sea of laptop-lit faces, all oblivious to the chai lattes that grow cold beside them. Local novelist K.M. Soehnlein said: ‘This is very much the situation in San Francisco. People writing their novels and screenplays on their laptops … I’m much more inclined to be the kind of writer who would sit in a noisy cafe to work, to feel the pulse of a lot of strangers and music.’

Outside, Valencia Street is a strip of ethnic restaurants, thrift stores, smoke shops and bars. It is also home to the largest contingent of independent bookstores in the city and is an incredible place to browse.

Modern Times is one of the more progressive hubs in the community, with large sections on globalisation, politics and gender, most of which reflect the Bay Area’s leftist credentials. Borderlands Books and Dog Eared Books are both eclectic and welcoming, the former known for its science fiction, the latter for its ‘zines (the quirky paper forefathers of the blog). Most of these places boast heaving events calendars as notable authors and activists do the rounds.

The bars are also involved in the literary scene. Writers With Drinks is a monthly reading set presented by irreverent transsexual and magazine publisher Charlie Anders at the Make Out Room, while Dalva and Sadie’s Flying Circus has regular, boozy word sessions. Expect writers that range from local upstarts to published authors Michelle Tea or Kirk Read. Other points of interest are Intersection for the Arts – a venue with a great programme of alternative performances and 826 Valencia; a charitable tutoring centre set up by best-selling author and literary titan Dave Eggers.

Though the back area of 826 is set aside for teaching, it is a good hub for lit-mags and a browse around the random Pirate supplies shop that fronts the venue.

While these districts are two of the most vibrant in San Francisco, there are literary snippets to be found across the city. The public library offers a free downtown tour of the haunts of Dashiell Hammett – father of the American detective novel and writer of the Maltese Falcon – and other hints for true relic hunters.

However, the contemporary scene is more rewarding, with its influence even cracking the financial district. During the week, corporate types get their fix from the lunchtime reading series at Stacey’s Bookstore and among the industrial innards of Varnish – a chic gallery, wine bar and literary venue. Then there is the warm woods and rich malts of the Edinburgh Castle – Irvine Welsh’s venue of choice when in town – and the monthly gig at Hayes Valley’s punky Rickshaw Stop.

San Francisco will always have plenty to offer, and this is just one way to take its pulse. But it is in this scene, in particular, that the city spirit is distilled and made unique. ‘Reading feels like an endangered activity,’ Soehnlein said. ‘More people spend time programming their iPods and watching YouTube than sitting quietly and reading, so it’s valuable that in a city like San Francisco you can just immerse yourself in this world. It’s a kind of salvation.

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Winning Ways

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011

Since Architecture for Humanity first made its mark in 1999 with a competition to design transitional housing for returning refugees in Kosovo, it has used designers’ competitive streaks to its advantage. Its competitions have produced the ultimate mobile health clinic for AIDS victims in Sub-Saharan Africa, a factory to connect indigenous chocolate producers in the Ecuadorian Amazon with the global marketplace, and many more. Each competition has garnered fame and funding, showing in travelling exhibitions and drawing a range of panellists, from architect Frank Gehry to actor Cameron Diaz. The blueprints are uploaded on the Open Architecture Network ( ) for use across the world, while the winning prototype is funded and built.

This may present an interesting challenge for the 2011 competition, which will ask architects to repurpose disused military installations for civic use. “They’re built with tax payers’ money – really well built – and just end up sitting there,” says executive director Cameron Sinclair. “These buildings can withstand natural disasters, and last a long, long time.” Finding such buildings could prove the first hurdle since, due to national security efforts, they are rarely plotted publicly; the second problem could be securing permission. Yet Sinclair and his team tend to enjoy a good challenge themselves, even the politically-flavoured ones; in Gaza, for example, where Palestinian dwellings are often demolished by Israeli forces, they once agreed to write a manual on how to rebuild one’s house, should ‘something’ happen to it. “We’re not a faith based or politically led organisation; we can work with anyone who invites us,“ says Sinclair. “We just have to keep our focus on the architecture. But I’m interested to see if anyone picks Guantanamo. The government are aware of this project, so we’ll see…”

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Manor in the works

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 4 March 2011 Philosopher Alain de Botton is bent on revitalising British ‘comfort’ architecture [See PDF: Alain de Botton ] For those who live in it, and visit it, British architecture is a wellspring of nostalgia. Spare a thought for the landscape here and you will likely envisage Georgian […]

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 4 March 2011

Philosopher Alain de Botton is bent on revitalising British ‘comfort’ architecture [See PDF: Alain de Botton ]

For those who live in it, and visit it, British architecture is a wellspring of nostalgia. Spare a thought for the landscape here and you will likely envisage Georgian manor houses amid rolling hills, or perhaps the sooty brick-and-mortar of Sherlock Holmes’ London. And while this has long been good news for the tourist board, for writer and popular philosopher Alain de Botton, it is an endless source of frustration.

“Liking modern architecture is a kind of sect here,” the Swiss-born de Botton complains from a cosy brickbound office in north London. “It’s like witchcraft, or something slightly unusual. Because Britain industrialised so fast there’s a tremendous desire for history. But there’s a reason things become history.”

As a writer, long based in England, de Botton has dedicated himself to reforming the public understanding of vital themes. His books have addressed love, travel and, most recently, work, and he cofounded a small “cultural apothecary” in London, The School of Life, which sells books and holds philosophy workshops and secular Sunday “sermons” on selfdevelopment.

His successful 2006 book, The Architecture of Happiness, ran in a similarly edifying vein and won him kudos from the Royal Institute of British Architects. Yet when it came to architecture, he felt compelled towards a more dynamic form of activism. The feeling grew as he explored forward-thinking home design across the world for the television series, The Perfect Home. “You find very good modernism in Asia. There are some beautiful examples of private houses, blocks of flats and civic building across China and Hong Kong; think of the Great Wall project, which has been iconic,” he says, referring to the Commune by the Great Wall project–12 strikingly modern villa projects designed by 12 Asian architects. He notes that China’s flirtation with Western historical cliché seems to be fading finally as its top earners appreciate the way that homegrown architects can mix elements of Chinese geography and geology with new international ideas.

In Japan, de Botton finds that many middle-class families are comfortable using modern architects, producing neighbourhoods that are adventurous but have a shared aesthetic. It’s a spirit that he identifies from his upbringing in Switzerland, but which he finds hard to locate among England’s suburban mock-Tudor housing estates. “The point is, when you’ve got an opportunity to build a house or stay somewhere, do you go for the ‘neowhatever’ mansion?” he asks. “Or do you accept that the architecture of our own times can have many of the qualities that people admire in buildings of old, like a sensory richness, a warmth, a connection with history, but they don’t have to be museum pieces or kitsch?”

De Botton’s brainchild, Living Architecture, is an apt response to this question. The new, not-forprofit venture will see provocative modern holiday cottages sprouting bravely among Britain’s mostly rural beauty spots. Three projects are complete and at least three more are on the way, each by a different architect, and each defined by the customary tenets of good modern architecture such as light, functionality and a strong connection with the surroundings.

The scheme is part vacation, part education, and through it de Botton hopes to ease what he sees as the public’s suspicion of modernist design, and drum up the kind of popular support enjoyed by other fields of design innovation in Britain, such as product design or fashion.

Yet this is not a project for Britons only. “It’s a national mission in the sense that the idea is to raise standards here, but we’re aware that the way to raise the standards is to bring foreign architects here, at least in part,” he says, noting that as developers in Britain court the British fondness for home-grown “comfort” architecture, they leave little room for studios with strong modernist architectural traditions, such as those in Germany, the Netherlands and further north in Europe.

De Botton also sees the cottages helping to refresh Britain’s image overseas, by letting holidaymakers immerse themselves in the countryside without necessarily taking a trip back in time or compromising on quality. “People are used to London being hip, cool and modern, but once you go outside of the M25 [London’s orbital motorway] you’re slightly in the wilderness,” he says. “We hope these houses will be clear and welcoming in a way that international audiences can appreciate.”

Yet despite these cosmopolitan sensibilities, most of the projects rework the unique architectural style of their area. The Shingle House, by Scotland’s Nord Architecture, is a stark reinvention of fishermen’s huts along the stony Kent coast, while the Dune House in Suffolk by the Norwegian Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects makes reference to local seaside buildings with a geometrical roof in tinted orange steel alloy. Projecting into the air above a Suffolk nature reserve, the Balancing Barn is a neat yet gravity-defying affair clad in reflective tiles, but features a local hammerbeam roof, and coming to Devon next year, Peter Zumthor’s Secular Retreat will attempt to use concrete and glass to spiritual effect, creating the vibe of a monastery or abbey.

But how have the British responded? Although the national media have retained their usual blend of hype and high-handed sting, local press coverage has been generally supportive. It’s a result, de Botton thinks, of striking the right balance between exciting and accessible design. “We haven’t had any fights with any locals,” he says, with a smile. “The house in Thorpeness [the Dune House] is very prominent and has really galvanised the area. People are coming forward and wanting to build their own houses. It’s become a complete talking point, which is exactly what we wanted.” It is also booked almost solid for the next six months.

Living Architecture has taken a brief hiatus from the countryside with its latest, equally radical project, though it is perhaps more publicity friendly than educational. Its Room for London will perch atop the city’s Southbank Centre for the whole of next year as part of the London 2012 Festival, which is a 12- week cultural event to celebrate the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Bookable from September for one night only per couple, the collaboration between competition winners David Kohn Architects and artist Fiona Banner will resemble a timber boat and offer sweeping views of the London landscape. And this is a view to which de Botton’s allegiance remains strong, despite his wider mission. “I think where Asia has learned the wrong lesson is not so much in architecture, but urban planning. They’re essentially working with a model about 40 years out of date,” he says. “Large arterial motorways connect districts, big shed shopping, high rises and parks all zoned separately as opposed to low rise, intermixed work and residential, which are ecological but also where people feel most comfortable.” Of course, this notion of comfort, as many will point out, is at the crux of the equation, and the heart of de Botton’s self-set challenge with Living Architecture. For many, true comfort, and thus true happiness, lies in echoes of the home they grew up in, or perhaps the house they idolised as a child, whether modernist or Gothic, airy or dim.

De Botton, who was raised in a “charming” but “brutalist” modernist block of apartments, recognises the paradox. “I think we picked a good moment. I think attitudes are changing, and will continue to change as more people have childhoods in modern houses,” he
says. “You’ve just got to get the babies in!”

BOX: How Life Inspires Architecture and Vice Versa

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton is no coffee-table tome. Compact and with its pictures in black and white, it feels as though it was meant to be read. De Botton’s sixth book is a conversational journey through humankind’s sculpting of space, from its cathedrals to its living rooms; from ancient Rome to Nazi Germany. Inspired by French writer Henri Stendhal’s declaration that “beauty is the promise of happiness”, as well as his own emotional ties to certain building types, de Botton explores the ways that life inspires architecture, and vice versa. He unfurls the meaning in symbols and silhouettes, and venerates architects for the way they harness universal themes. Yet he also humanises a few heroes with the forgotten tales of their failures, including the self-indulgent tragedy that Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye was for the family who had to live in it (the Swiss architect barely escaped a lawsuit). The book delves into the sociology of trends and the psychology of taste; why it was that 17th-century French aristocrats loved gilded ceilings, yet 21stcentury urbanites like theirs rough and unplastered. But he is also keen to convince us of architecture’s main line to the soul, to illustrate how the beauty of a building can reduce us to tears, and to explain why, if it hasn’t yet, it should do.

This exploration into architecture is no coffee-table tome. Small in size and with its pictures in black and white, one gets the sense that it was meant to be read. ** De Botton’s sixth book is a conversational journey through humankind’s sculpting of space, from its cathedrals to its living rooms; from Ancient Rome to Nazi Germany. Inspired by French writer Henri B. Stendhal’s declaration that “beauty is the promise of happiness”, as well as his own emotional ties to certain building types, de Botton explores the ways that life inspires architecture, and vice versa. He unfurls the meaning in symbols and silhouettes, and venerates architects for the way they harness universal themes. Yet he also humanises a few heroes with the forgotten tales of their failures, including the self-indulgent tragedy that Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye was for the family who had to live in it (the architect barely escaped a lawsuit). The book delves into the sociology of trends and the psychology of taste; why it was that seventeenth-century French aristocrats loved gilded ceilings, yet twenty-first century urbanites like theirs rough and unplastered. But he is also keen to convince us of architecture’s mainline to the very soul, to illustrate how the beauty of a building can reduce us to tears, and to explain why, if it hasn’t yet, it should do. His peers seem to think that he did a fair job of it. Due to the book de Botton was made an honouray fellow by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2010 for his services to the profession.

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Crisis by design

Extended interview, March 2011

Architect, eternal optimist and founder of a now-formidable humanitarian relief organization, Cameron Sinclair chats about the transition from design to development guru, the politics of humanitarian intervention, and sending architects into many of the decade’s biggest disaster zones. [See published feature in the South China Morning Post at AFH 2011]

“The idea of designing without ego …”

When we won (the grant) from TED we were a 60, 000 dollar organisation, now we’re closer to 6 million; that’s in four or five years. It wasn’t TED that made us explode, though it really gave us awareness and projected our methodology to other people; the idea of designing without ego, sharing openly, using adaptation as opposed to repetition, which was a really big shift: saying, different neighbourhoods have different issues, adapt the building to that. The thing that really made us explode was just prior to TED, when we started responding to the tsunami. We had partners with a website called World Changing, and we said we wanted to raise 10,000 dollars. But we raised half a million. And there was something frustrating me about our business model. It had been thoughtful, had integrated stakeholders, used the right materials and technologies, and we’d hand it off and they’d just build crap… It’s like cooking a great meal for someone, and then them making toast and walking off! Everyone uses this Ghandi phrase: be the change you want to see in the world. It had been playing on my mind. We needed to go beyond design service, to design and construction management – to be the bank. The tsunami was our test case. It was phenomenally successful: 20 plus schools, 12 community centres, maybe a hundred houses with very little money.  Coupled with a series of natural disasters where we were ready and prepared, we were able to prove our model.

“It was push and pull – between us deciding to work on something and the community telling us to.”

After the TED prize we started working on Katrina, we had raised 50,000 before we’d even announced that we’d be there. So part of it was push and pull: between us deciding to work on something and the community telling us to. We learned not only do you have to manage construction and finance the process but boost on-the-ground methodology. If you scale that on the ground, the impact you have scales. We’re a one stop shop: we will give you pro bono advice, help you know how to get money, help with all the legalese, do case assessment on families. And NGOs started to come in by the dozen asking to partner. So we started to partner with everybody. We had an anonymous funder who we could only later announce was Oprah.

It led to a really diversified investment donor strategy. 60% is pro-bono, say if Oxfam or UNICEF want to finish a school, they hire us to be architects and construction managers. We only take jobs that are in humanitarian, in the non profit world, so there’s no infringing on the professional sphere, but we realised that the best non-profit is set up like a for profit. It wasn’t the sexy buildings – it was the business models and the investment. But we’re a fun organisation, you can see tangible evidence. Donate 50 bucks and there’s a physical structure that you get out of it.

“The school is a 24-hour building.”

Every two years we hold a design competition around a systemic issue. In 2009 it was to design classroom of the future, to involve kids, teachers, architect, and in that process we realised that the school, in many instances, is a 24-hour building. Where mobile health comes, communities gather, if you’re in rural areas anyway, and the school is the heart of the community. And if we can improve design and construction quality from those schools, people will steal the best ideas locally. It’s like open sourcing.

You can see what I mean with one of our designs, which this year was a finalist of the Aga Khan award. What was unique about that building is, they went back four years after, and you began to see that all the homes around the facility had copied the roof details and the rain water catchment. The urban acupuncture structures end up creating a ripple effect with the community.

Throughout Latin America, Nike and FIFA had come to us because we’d done a number of Sports for Social Change facilities, which double as headquarters for local NGOs to tackle conflict resolution or HIV. Sports is really a central gatherer of people; kids come out and parents too. We’ve completed 17 sports for Social Change facilities from Afghanistan to Brazil. I think on average to be a successful organisation we need to be doing 30 – 50 projects at any one time.

Bringing in international designers never works. They begin to overlook the cultural sustainability aspects, things that are important that you can’t see. It happens to everyone: once you get so far removed from your daily life you can become overwhelmed. In a village with high mortality, no drinking water, you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulder if you don’t design the perfect school! But you tend to get the same-old-same-old. Real magic happens when you marry an international designer with a local designer. So on every project we have a locally licensed architect or engineer.

The local chapters do pro bono, but we have a stipend for every designer in the field. It’s a ridiculously small amount: on average about 1,500 dollars plus travel and health care. We pay them to hold them legally accountable. We then pay the local architect too, and it still works out less than the big NGOs.  We have architects and engineers on the ground, and integrate sustainability throughout. Every building we design have universal access. And you’ll be shocked to find how few do in the developing world in humanitarian built buildings, even in schools, places with civil war and large amount of amputees!

“Clinton… the Lone Sheep”

We do a lot of post disaster reconstruction. Last year Haiti was everything anyone could talk about. This year at [the World Economic Forum in] Davos no one talked about it; only Clinton, the lone sheep. You know the largest amount of funding we got was from kids, high school kids, and they are really the engine that is keeping us in Haiti. Then there are corporate grants, and the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund has funded a programme to elevate construction standards. We’ve trained a few thousand Haitians so far and put a few thousand to work, but we’re hoping to have 30,000 in the construction industry, to keep the reconstruction funds in the hands of the Haitians to avoid flown in pre-fab solutions.

The thing about Haiti is, you have to raise all the money in the four first weeks that will last four years, because after that no one cares. It’s the same for Pakistan and Chile and New Zealand… we were really lucky in our Pakistan and New Zealand response, which was a direct result of our chapters. We have office in San Francisco and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Cape Town, and they focus on the headquarter projects. But we started Chapters to give pro bono design service in our local community, and there are about 6,500 architects actively working in this network in 73 cities around the world. So what happened in Pakistan is the Karachi chapter kind of woke up, stopped all their work, flew into the Swat Valley and started responding. They’d already helped clear 1,500 homes before our office new about it.

“Architecture and politics are very intertwined”

We’re professionals: everyone goes through full Building Code compliance. In Nairobi we’re working on a community facility which is the only legal building in the slum of thousands. A lot of people who do humanitarian design – they don’t do that. But part of our role is to improve standards and if we don’t adhere, why are we even there? And there is a relationship with both the legal and political structure. If you turn up and start building, and don’t keep to the political and legal process, you’re undermining the locals. This is a real worry in Haiti. If you keep skirting around the government, you’re going to weaken it.

One of the projects we’ve been looking at is building southern Sudan, as a new country. But the challenge is, how do we build the school and health care system without undermining local initiatives or the government? Architecture and politics are very intertwined so you must figure out the mechanism to either work with, or enforce. In Haiti and Kenya we’ve been pushing for stronger codes. In many cases water doesn’t kill people, buildings do.

Corruption is a tricky one. A lot of it isn’t illegal, but you’ll get a relief organisation that’s never done a particular type of work before, they’ll get a massive grant, take their 30 % and then they outsource. Then those people outsource it, so by the time it gets to the country you’re down 50% or so, which means that the quality of the procedures is much less. Yet their people are driving around in SUVs with Ray Bans on. So the local NGOs say, why not me too? For me it’s really hard to listen to certain NGO leaders sitting drinking G&Ts and talking about local corruption. Wait, you make a hundred thousand dollars a year or more. This woman will skim off the top if it puts her kids in school.  You’ve got to look at corruption holistically. Last year we did an IPAD ap which was shown in MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art, New York), visualising humanitarian work around the world…  basically you open up the globe and pull in data live. I started thinking about crowd accountability, and US aid projects. You know, put ‘em up online and require whoever’s in charge, to take a picture of the project. We’re looking at corruption within the reconstruction world. People try to compare Architecture for Humanity to Frank Gehry. But actually you should be comparing us to Haliburton, or US aid, or Oxfam, to understand where we fit in.

We never go into a country unless we’re invited. The only rule is, don’t work in places that are in the process of being destroyed. For a long time we didn’t build in Afghanistan. We just did last year. Would we build in Iraq? Probably not right now, but as things begin to settle…

“Earthquakes don’t discriminate”

We have a strong chapter in Auckland who were able to take out post disaster recovery template and adapt it to the Christchurch situation. It’s unique in the sense that you’ve got a first world country. Frankly in the US no one cares about New Zealand. I got email s from people saying this isn’t a real earthquake. People can’t get their head around it. Earthquakes don’t discriminate! You could be the richest person on the island and lose everything completely. They really need architects and engineers because one in three buildings in the CBD had to be taken down. For 10,000 homes the land itself has liquefied, to the extent something like a tenth of the residential neighbourhood have to be moved. Imagine doing that for London! Our team has been on ground carrying out building assessments to find who is falling through the cracks. We hope to do pro bono design and engineering services, and they’re trying to assess what buildings can be occupied and repaired. We’ve talked to schools, community groups, particularly indigenous community groups that may not be on the radar.

“What huge balls that guy had…”

[The World Economic Forum at Davos is] always good for me because I always misbehave. I’m part of group  of Young Global Leaders, and our original mandate was to basically cause havoc; go to panels and ask very pointed questions. I would say about 20 percent do that and the rest at Davos are doing business. So you get to have fun. And it leads to the most bizarre responses. There was a whole thing on Russia: Medvedev came out to do this whole, ‘not bowing to terrorism thing’, and there was a panel discussion on investing in Russia, with everyone falling head over heels to talk about how amazing Russia was. One guy stood up from an investment group and tells this story about how his company was stolen by the Russians and he lost 4 billion dollars, and his lawyers were murdered… The Russians were like, that was the past. What huge balls that guy had! Then they got to me, and I had a simple question – Russia has a dying population. Lots of people are leaving Russia and going to Western Europe. So I ask this question to the deputy prime minister: how is Russia supposed to grow when losing its people? He goes into bizarre ramble about the impregnation of Russian women. So if you ask pointed questions at Davos you put them in a corner, and you inevitably get something shocking.


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